My neighbour Hazel has two boys: Jo, aged four and Sam, 18 months. She works as a secretary, and her husband is a lecturer. They would dearly like Jo to go to a nursery class, but the childminder, who is elderly, minds other children after school, and cannot take him to a different school for his nursery class. Also, Hazel does not want to have different arrangements for Jo and Sam. So she continues to use the childminder about whom she and her husband have reservations. It costs more than Pounds l20 a week but is just about worth it, so Hazel keeps her job.
My second neighbour, Agnes, is Nigerian. She came here as a young bride to an older husband, who saw it as her duty to bear his children. She now has three children under five, a boy of four, a girl of two and a new baby. She has put her foot down, defying both her husband and the Catholic Church, and refuses to have any more children.
She has been isolated at home. With a superhuman effort, she got to a night class once a week, and successfully took an access course to enter for a law degree. She passed the exam the day before her baby was born. She has ability and determination and would dearly like to go on with her studies. But she knows this is impossible because she cannot afford childcare.
The children are bilingual. Agnes speaks to them in Ibo and English, and they are slow at speaking, as many bilingual children are. They scream a lot because they are so frustrated about speaking. Agnes lives in a small flat, with a lodger, so space is very restricted. Her son and daughter would love the local nursery class, but it only takes four-year-olds for two-and-a-half hours a day.
She did not understand the regulations properly and did not have her son's name down on the entry list in time, but in any case feels she cannot do the journey of a mile twice a day, with all three children, for such a short period. So she uses the local playgroup, which is nearer. It is held in a draughty church hall, and the staff, who are volunteers on a rota, change every week. There is very little understanding of the children's language difficulties or their need for consistency. It costs Pounds 10 a week, which Agnes can barely afford. She is lonely and dissatisfied, but what else can she do?
My third neighbour, Coral, had an abusive husband, who is now in prison. She drinks and this sometimes makes her foul-mouthed and abusive. She has a small son who, not surprisingly, seems to have delinquent tendencies - you only have to spend l0 minutes with John to experience his fierce negativity and aggression. He would very much benefit from relaxed play in a nursery class, where he could work out some of his aggressive feelings. But Sarah is too depressed to take him, and the nursery will not have him - he is too much of a problem and would disrupt the other children, and they have not got enough staff to cope with him.
The social worker wants John to go to a family centre, where the staff will not object to his behaviour, and where they can keep an eye on him throughout the year and work with Sarah on her parenting skills. Sarah won't go because she feels people will point at her even more if they know her social worker sent her. Sarah once told me that she was a trained hairdresser, and would like to go back to work - but knows she never can now because of John.
These are three women for whom the local nursery class is no use, because of its short hours and holidays, and its view that it is exclusively concerned with learning. Yet the staff there say they want to involve parents and be involved with the local community. They feel the children who come to the nursery need more emphasis on literacy and numeracy, and they would like to do some home visiting, to show parents some ways of working with their children.
What these mothers most want, and what would most transform their own and their children's lives, is good, reliable child care. Is it beyond our wit to combine the two?
Helen Penn works in the department of child development and primary education at the Institute of Education, University of London.