Children need their homes, not centres

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
They come up to me in the playground. My boy has a gold star taped to his sweatshirt for doing well at something, though he can't remember what. My little girl wants to explain that she ate all her cherry tomatoes and her picture of daddy hasn't got a nose because she can't do noses yet. My big girl wants to tell me about a problem with a friend and ask if I can help on the next school trip.

I make the mental adjustment from the work - journalism and studying - I've been doing during the day and we wander towards the park to catch the last half an hour of winter sunshine.

A couple of taxis full of small children leave the school car park on their way to an after-school club elsewhere in the town. And a young woman picks up a group of children to take them for an after-school session at a nearby nursery.

I wonder. Do they tell the taxi-driver about the cherry tomatoes and the friend problem? Does the young woman ask what the star is for or find a good-for-noses crayon? Am I wasting my potentially well-paid time?

Harriet Harman's childcare commission has now suggested that money should be paid to mothers of toddlers so they can choose between staying at home or childcare. Great idea. It also suggests 10,000 centres nationwide providing after-school care. With this brave new world, the commission banishes the spectre of latch-key kids, mown down by crazy drivers, seized by child-molesters, or if they make it home, sedated by the universal nanny of television.

It raises another spook, though. I've been to a few after-school clubs. The parents raved about them - so cheap, so safe, so flexible. And yet, two years on with all my children now at school for the first time, I wouldn't actually want to use one.

I thought about it last September. Instead of the cutting and sticking tables, the percussion corner and the dressing-up box, I remembered the five-year-old, eyes dark pools of tiredness, asking at 6pm whether mummy was here yet. And the 11-year-old with period pains who should have been at home in bed with a hot-water bottle. And those cheerful, resourceful carers who are not allowed to cuddle the children.

Life in our family isn't Milly-Molly-Mandy, running hoppity-skippity from school to the nice white cottage for home-made bread and jam. We hae our after-school disasters: a bladder crisis on the walk to the pool; downright refusal to stop punting a ball about the playground even though it's raining; a nose turned up at home-made veggie pasta. That's just this week.

But I hear the little one read every day (gold star please, Mr Blunkett) and usually read to all three. Violin and piano practice get done. So do swimming lessons. We have friends sometimes. We talk and we potter. If they have a tantrum they can go and throw themselves on their own bed. So can I. They can even just mooch about if they want. It's their place. It's home.

It would probably be a bigger, smarter home if I worked full-time and they were at the centre, but what would be the point?

Children's centres are a soft option for government, soft because they let employers off the hook at the expense of the most vulnerable and least vocal part of society, our children.

The children of Vision Harman will spend all day in one institution and then be transferred to another at the ring of a bell which used to signal home. They will be bussed or walked to centres serving two or three schools. What a chilly end to the day.

No one's making it compulsory, I hear you say? You wait and see. See the part-time work which so many women do disappear as employers no longer accept the need for family-friendly hours. "You have children? Well, they can go to the centre, can't they? We only offer full days."

And the women who now leave offices and supermarket tills at 2.30 to get their children from school will pick them up three hours later from the centre. The childminders, honorary mums to many, who now pick up their own and a couple more for a taste of home, will gradually disappear.

After the centre there'll be no time - or energy - for music lessons or messing about at the kitchen table or talking about their day. Fast food, video chill-out and bed.

The opportunity to pick your own children up, with its squabbles and pleasures, will be the prerogative of the few lucky people who can work at home. But children need parents, even more than they need their maximum earning capacity.

They grow up so fast. How many times have you heard that? Even faster if you're not looking.

Jill Parkin is a freelance journalist

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