'It's Catch-22. Women vote for them because they need them, not because they want them'

12th August 2005 at 01:00
Jill Parkin continues our summer series with a look at the real cost of extending school hours to suit working parents

Presumably there's some research behind it all. Presumably the Government has identified an evolving type of mother who wants to have babies and then park them for the next 18 years. And I guess we also have scientific findings that prove being parked is best for the babies.

I guess so, because if not, what are Kelly hours about? They're a brave new vision - of children, bright-eyed and eager to learn, being dropped off at school at 7am for a nourishing breakfast, half an hour's Spanish conversation and some personal health and social education; of children so keen on school that they stay there for tea, homework and creative play until they're picked up at half past six.

The trouble is, the vision - like the brave new world - is false. Those children are still sleepy when they're rushed out of the house so everyone can get to work on time. By 3.30 they're tired again and want to go home.

They'd like to have time with a mother who isn't shattered by her own long day. They'd like time and space in their own homes.

Enid Blyton, in her punitive and sadistic mood, once wrote a ghastly story about two children who wouldn't put their toys away and go to sleep. That night they were whisked off to a play palace, where they had to play and play and play, no matter how tired they grew. Kelly hours are a bit like that - school's a good thing, but we all know you can have too much of a good thing.

For many children these days, the rush away from home starts almost at birth. Baby parks are spreading quickly over the nation's suburbs. Church halls, Victorian terraces, the floor above the convenience store - we can now leave our children in all sorts of places on our way to work.

Many of this Government's policies - such as the idea of universal and affordable childcare from three upwards - work to keep mothers and children apart both before school and in the later years. Whether they promise a guaranteed income of pound;258 a week for those with children and in full-time work, or working tax credits, or even the risible "right to request" flexible working if you have children under six, such policies put the pressure on mothers of the very young to go back to work. And with Kelly hours, you need never stop - what a slogan.

It all seems terribly sad: stressed mothers bundling their pre-school children out of the house and into the car while they're still pink with sleep; the hours spent in the care of a low-paid transitory workforce; and the report at the end of the day on how many nappies, how much milk and rusk, how many tantrums.

As the babies will discover at school, enough of life is governed by the clock and the bell. These should be the years for pottering around your house and exploring the world from the safety of your mother's arms. And the primary school years should have a few home comforts before and after school, too.

There are signs - a poll earlier this year, for example - that mothers want to resist this back-to-work diktat, but of course the more it is encouraged by the Government, the more of a financial necessity it becomes because prices are driven up by what the majority will pay. Kelly hours are a Catch-22. Women vote for them because they need them, not because they want them. And they need them to survive in this Government's economy.

The hidden cost of using mothers and children to boost the economy through day care and extended school days is aggression, low self-esteem among the young, and an uncomfortable package of stress and guilt for the parents. We know from the research that children who spend long hours in day care before the age of two are more likely to display anti-social behaviour by the age of three. We know their use of language is affected and that the quiet ones get less attention than the others.

A few years down the line, these bewildered babies and touchy toddlers are the children whose aggression and simple disregard of others makes them uncontrollable in secondary school. This can only get worse as the Government-backed idea of the extended school day - drop your child off before breakfast and pick him up three or four hours after lessons finish - catches hold and reduces family time still further.

The more women go back to work early thanks to the baby parks and the long school day, the more will have to. That's simple economics. Houses and all the other things we buy cost whatever the market will bear.

I'm all in favour of a longer day for secondary school pupils - sport, clubs, music, language lessons. But give the young ones and their mothers a break. Call time on Kelly's hours - she gives with one hand and takes away a lot more with the other.

Next week: catherine paver on the trouble with exam criteria

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