The child and Big Brother

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Is the Government's growing intervention helping parents do the best for their offspring, or is it a new totalitarianism?

Who'd be a child today? They are overprotected yet neglected, under huge academic pressure but with less general knowledge than 30 years ago, told to be themselves but subjected to constant pressure to be someone else.

There are endless squabbles over what is best for them. Can parents be trusted to get it right? Or, given the truth of Philip Larkin's famous opening line ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad"), does the state need to get involved in a big way? Sue Palmer, who spoke at the Education Show last week about her forthcoming book, Toxic Childhood (TES, March 10), believes the speed of change in the 21st- century world and the fast-paced, multi-tasking society it has brought about, have led us to forget that children's natural development proceeds at the same pace as ever. TV and computers can't compensate for a lack of genuine human contact and conversation. And we cannot tell what effects the overtly sexual and violent images children see every day are having on them. Ms Palmer wants more regulation: of advertising aimed at children; of the content they are exposed to from electronic media; of the food they are given.

But libertarians say the Every Child Matters agenda is taking regulation to extremes and failing to trust parents at the same time as it claims to be helping them. They say there is too much government intervention. A Centre for Policy Studies report published this month, complains that Every Child Matters is creating "a direct relationship between child and state, with objectives determined by government, not by parents". The document, titled The Nationalisation of Childhood, continues: "The role of parents would, in effect, be subsidiary to the state."

For instance, notes its author, Jill Kirby, the Government is to measure how well children are achieving the agenda's five outcomes - enjoy and achieve, be safe, be healthy, achieve economic well-being, make a positive contribution - through mandatory Young People's Plans in every local authority and a list of more than 50 Ofsted criteria. Authorities will have to show, among other things, that they are increasing the proportion of children eating their five fruits and vegetables and those who take up sport.

Ms Kirby argues that Gordon Brown's doctrine of "progressive universalism", under which services are provided for everyone, but more intensively for the most needy, is actually putting the more vulnerable children at risk.

This is because both human and financial resources are spread too thinly, and not concentrated where they really matter.

"Because it refuses to identify the real-life causes of the worst outcomes for children, such as young lone motherhood and family disruption, the Government is incapable of helping the most vulnerable," she writes. "At the same time, it is undermining the most reliable source of security and well-being for every child; the presence and commitment of both parents."

Readers who are out of sympathy with right-wing think-tanks may find it hard to accept that the CPS has made some valuable points. And when the report says, "The nationalisation of childhood is no longer a Marxist dream; it is becoming a British reality", it's a bit off-putting. But there is much here to think about.

First, have we got inspection of Every Child Matters right? Or is the Government contriving an over-complex 10-agency behemoth (including social services, police, health and education) which will miss the big picture in a mass of details? More importantly, are we afraid to target those who most need help for fear of stigmatising them? One of the documented problems with Sure Start was that although it concentrated on the poorest neighbourhoods, it often missed the most troubled families.

The Government is thinking about ways to identify and help the families in the direst straits. One example of how this can be done was encountered by children's minister Beverley Hughes and a team of early-years experts on an American visit this winter. It's a pilot run in downtrodden parts of the US, by a developmental psychologist named David Olds. Dedicated and skilled nurse visitors spend time with teenage mothers in their homes, before and for two years after the birth, sometimes enthusiastically welcomed, sometimes grudgingly accepted (see box, left). The girls learn the basics of parenting and child development, and get to feel cared for themselves.

It's a step towards breaking the poverty cycle. And the evidence is that nurse-visited children are likely to have fewer mental-health problems and larger vocabularies, and their mums are more likely to be in jobs and stable relationships several years later.

So, while it is tempting to dismiss Jill Kirby's call for the encouragement of two-parent families as idealistic but unrealistic, it seems that targeted intervention can help promote better relationships between adults.

But in areas of social devastation targeting is not enough.

According to early childhood consultant Gillian Pugh, the early Sure Start evaluation showed fairly limited results because, in retrospect, it didn't attach enough strings to the funds. Where staff were insufficiently skilled, they ran pleasant centres with activities such as baby massage, but did not know what to do for the really vulnerable or how to reach them.

She says the community-based model was right, but perhaps there should have been more guidance.

Dame Gillian believes you need good universal services as well as specific targeting. One or the other won't do the trick on its own.

The Government is trying to provide targeted support in the context of mainstream services. The idea is that the right daycare, family support and policies can help prevent the acute problems from developing. With better community services, some of the teenage girls in Olds' pilots might never have needed the nurse-visitors.

But if Labour is pro-child, it is ambivalent about parents. They are the kings and queens of choice when it comes to finding a school or childcare, but then they can be subjected to punitive-sounding parenting orders forcing them to attend special classes when their children get out of order.

Many people find the parenting classes a help. "Having support for parents as a punishment rather than as a right is the wrong way round," says Gillian Pugh. "My view is that what's needed is sufficient choice for parents to lead their lives how they want, but from the perspective of children, we sometimes need to support parents, and sometimes intervene."

Finally, the Government deserves credit for lifting 700,000 children out of poverty since 1998, although it has missed its target one million. Nearly three-quarters of a million children will have a better chance.

Diane Hofkins The Nationalisation of Childhood,

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