Show children we care by taking them home

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
In the many thousands of words on hundreds of pages that constitute the new national vision for early-years education, there is, for me, one sentence that should be printed in extra large, bold type, but has instead been tucked away, out of sight.

This "educare" vision which is shared by ministers, charities, think-tanks, in fact the world and his gainfully-employed wife, is that the state should be moving towards taking on a larger share of its childcare responsibilities.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, dreams of children safely imprisoned in schools from dawn to dusk, allowing parents to contribute more fully to the economic life of the country. Mothers need to be at their desks by 9am: fine, let's open schools at 8. Fathers cannot leave their desks before 5pm: that's OK -we'll keep their offspring in school until 6.

The Day Care Trust and the Social Market Foundation share this waking dream. Their report, published earlier this month, details all the advantages society will gain from a system of freely available, high-quality childcare, designed around the needs of the economy. All of them are very sound reasons to try to improve the UK's childcare system: more parents in work means less child poverty, less poverty leads to better educational achievement, which improves the child's life-chances, feeding into succeeding generations.

And the wider vision has elements which we would do well to hang on to: parental leave extended to a child's first 12 months, a homecare allowance for parents who stay at home until the child is two, more free nursery places for longer hours from the age of two; a more highly-skilled early-years workforce.

But for all the belief that a better world can be created by placing children outside the home into quality day care settings, there is a poison at its core. On page seven of a 40-page report, the Day Care Trust admits:

"The effects on (a child's) emotional development remain more controversial." And that's it.

We do not know, because there is not enough research, how children will react to being in the care of professional minders for the best part of their waking day, five days a week. We do know of the educational benefits of a prolonged stint in a nursery class. But what is the emotional impact on a two-year-old of being placed in a room full of same-age toddlers, sharing the attention of a staff, who however caring, are still doing a job for which they are paid? We cannot expect anyone we pay to look after our children to love them as we do. Care for them, keep them safe, yes. But love is too much to ask.

Of course, some children's life circumstances are such that they are actually better off in school all day. But for most, home is where the heart is.

What will be the emotional impact and the future problems for an eight-year-old, desperate to get home at 3.30pm to have a drink that is not water, eat a snack which probably isn't going to tally with the healthy food project she's left in the classroom, and chatter away to her secret doll she is too cool to be seen to cherish?

And what of the 13-year-old who just wants to mooch by himself, to check on the progress of his "moustache", to write that illicit email?

We know as adults that it doesn't matter how close the family or friend, their house is not ours - we do not feel as comfortable there as we do at our own hearth. However entertained we are, however enriched we feel, it is always a relief to get home.

Imagine the stress of being permanently in public, having to spend even your leisure time in your workplace. Now transfer it to your children - is all-day school still a good idea?

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